BMW’s 3-Series is always the benchmark, always the target, and always on a pedestal. So when GM announced Cadillac would once again “complete head-on” with BMW’s money-maker, the world yawned. Then an interesting thing happened, publications started fawning over the ATS, proclaiming the 3-Series has met its match. Could such a thing be true? Even our own Michael Karesh was smitten by the ATS at a launch event. To find out how the ATS matches up with its German rival, Cadillac tossed us the keys to a loaded ATS 3.6 AWD. Can Cadillac beat BMW at their own game? Let’s find out.
While the ATS fails to make a dramatic new statement of Cadillac’s “Art and Science” design, it is the most balanced rendition of the form to date. Compared to the 3-Series, the ATS strikes a more aggressive pose in the parking lot thanks to the hard lines and aggressive stance. Up front, Cadillac has kept the bold angular grille we’re used to, but ditched most of chrome bling found on other Cadillacs. Out back you’ll find a short trunk overhang with a perky tail light/spoiler and “mini-fins.” You may laugh, but I think the resurrection of Cadillac fins and funky tail lamps are some of the best touches on the ATS.
Does that make the ATS better than the 3 on the outside? Not for me, but your mileage will vary. The ATS is undeniably more expressive, flashier and aggressive compared to the plain-Jane A4, dowdy C350 or the elegant (but very reserved) 3. Oddly enough it’s BMW’s understated elegance and limo-like proportions that do it for me. What does that mean for you? If you’re a traditional BMW 3-Series shopper, then the ATS is more likely to be your thing. If you’re after a soft entry level luxury sedan but the ES350 is “too FWD”, the 3′s long hood, soft suspension and graceful lines will seal the deal. In my mind the 3 and the ATS tie in this category.
The ATS wears, hands-down, the best production cabin GM has made. The styling may not be your cup of tea, but the interior possessed none of the strange quality concerns I noticed in the new XTS. Does that mean the Caddy has the best cabin in the segment? No, that award still ends up a tie between Audi and Volvo. However, the ATS’s cabin is nearly the equal of the 3-Series. Why nearly? It’s all about consistency.
Everything inside the BMW’s cabin is of a similar quality, from buttons on the dash to the headliner, everything is exactly what you expect from a $30,000-$55,000 car. The ATS on the other hand is full of “highs and lows.” Caddy’s highs include perfect dashboard stitching, comfortable seats and an excellent tiller. Sadly the gauge cluster didn’t get the memo. Instead of the SRX’s funky new three circle gauge cluster, buyers get the frumpy base gauges from the “this is your Grandfather’s Cadillac” XTS. Still, it would all have been OK if Caddy had offered the XTS’s gorgeous full-LCD cluster as an option, but sadly it wasn’t to be. In our Facebook page’s weekly “hit it or quit it” contest, the ATS’s dials received a unanimous “quit it.” The fervor even spawned a Vellum Venom Vignette. What was all the drama about? Check out the day/night comparison below.
The ATS is available in an impressive array of interior colors, something lacking in many European sedans. While our tester arrived wearing a Germanic black-on-black-on-black ensemble, a quick trip to my local dealer revealed (thankfully) that the tasteful red and black interior and light grey interior with brown dashboard and door treatments were easy on the eyes and plentiful on the lots. Another rarity I noticed is a passenger seat with the same range of motion as the driver’s seat making long journeys more comfortable for your spouse.
When it comes to seating and cargo hauling, Cadillac benchmarked the last generation 3. As a result, front and rear accommodations are comfortable but snug with leg room coming in several inches behind the 3 and A4. The trunk also comes up short at 10.2 cubes vs the 12.4 cubes from the A4 and C350 or the ginormous 17 cubic foot trunk in the BMW. While the ATS represents huge strides in quality from GM, the tighter quarters and lack of consistency shown in cabin trappings gives the BMW the edge in this category.
Infotainment & Gadgets
Today’s compact luxury sedans come with more computing power than a 1990s dorm room. While the Euro players favor infotainment systems driven by a knob and button array, Cadillac has followed Lincoln’s lead with a 100% touch-screen driven interface called “Cadillac User Experience” or CUE. Caddy makes the system standard on all but the base 2.5 and 2.0 turbo models of the ATS although base shoppers can add it as a $1,350 option. The heart of the system is a gorgeous 8-inch LCD. Up till now, most touchscreen systems have used the older “resistive” touchscreen tech which uses a soft, matte plastic surface to detect digits. Displays like this (MyLincoln Touch uses this type of screen) can easily scratch and images can look “fuzzy” since you are viewing the image through the touchscreen layer. Cadillac stuck out their neck and used a more expensive “capacitive” touchscreen with a hard surface that is easy to clean, scratch-resistant, and delivers graphics that are crisper than any system I have seen to date. What was Caddy’s muse? Think iPad.
Cadillac tossed in “natural” voice commands for the entire system (including USB and iPod control), three high power USB ports (capable of charging an iPad), and smartphone app integration. If you want to know more about CUE, check out the video at the top of the review.
In comparison to BMW’s iDrive, the ATS’s touch buttons and iPadesque operation wow for a while, but proved less elegant and less reliable than iDrive after the first few hours. Keep in mind that CUE is in its first release while iDrive is the product of a decade of software development. The difference shows. While I haven’t seen iDrive crash since 2002, CUE crashed several times during the week. In addition, “multi-touch” gestures for “zooming” the map sound cool, but the response time was slow and the process proved more aggravating than useful. Cadillac’s mapping software is a notch below BMW’s in terms of visual appeal and the system just isn’t as intuitive as the latest build of iDrive.
Cadillac counters their “youthful” software with a bevy of standard and available features that you won’t find on many of the non-BMW competition including a full color heads up display, magnetic ride control, cross traffic alert, dynamic cruise control, collision prevention, and front and rear automatic braking in low-speed parking situations. When all the bells and whistles are tallied, the number comes out even, but BMW’s more elegant software gives the Bavarians the edge.
Competing with the 3 properly, means offering your wares globally and providing a range of small displacement and turbocharged engines. As a result, the drivetrain chart for the ATS starts with a brand-new high-compression 2.5L direct-injection four-cylinder engine designed to battle BMW’s budget 320i. While GM tells us the same engine will find its way under the hood of the Malibu and Impala, Cadillac’s version gets a power bump to 202HP and 192lb-ft with a high 7,000 RPM redline. While this is the engine of choice for rental cars and lease specials, it competes quite well with BMW’s discount 320i with 180HP and 200lb-ft of torque.
Competing with BMW’s 328i (and costing $1,805 more than the 2.5) is GM’s thoroughly redesigned 2.0L turbo. The direct-injection mill packs a serious punch with 272HP and 260lb-ft of twist compared to BMW’s 240HP and 255lb-ft. While Cadillac’s torque curve isn’t as low as the German’s, Cadillac has kept their curb weight low ringing in around 40lbs lighter than the 328i. The difference is small but shows Cadillac was paying attention.
If six cylinders is your thing, Cadillac will jam their 3.6L direct-injection engine under the ATS’s hood for an extra $2,200. The 321HP six-pot cranks out more HP than BMW’s 3.0L turbo I6 (300HP) but delivers less torque (274lb-ft vs 300lb-ft) and of course the lack of a turbo means the 3.6L engine has a torque peak instead of a plateau. Once again Cadillac counters by being lighter, this time by 94lbs.
Regardless of your engine choice, all engines use the same 6-speed GM automatic transmission. If you want to make your BMW owning friends scratch their heads, this is essentially the same transmission used in a variety of BMW 3-Series, X1 and X3 models before BMW started buying the ZF 8-speed. If you opt for the 2.0L or 3.6L engines, Cadillac will drop their AWD system ($2,000) or a Tremec 6-speed manual into the ATS, but sadly the options are mutually exclusive.
As much as I like BMW’s torque-happy 3.0L I6 turbo, Cadillac’s naturally aspirated V6 sounds better. The BMW is still faster to 60 (thank the torque deficit), but the ATS ties with the BMW in my book thanks to the combination of a great sound, no turbo lag and excellent power delivery characteristics. The small turbo match up is more cut and dry. GM’s turbo four cranks out more shove and matches the German mill in terms of refinement. Meanwhile at the bottom of the pile, BMW’s base 320i engine provides more useable power than Caddy’s base engine, but the 2.5L four has a better sound, no lag and is eager to rev.
Refinement and aural sensations are one thing, balanced performance is another and this is where the ATS shines (just not in a straight line). The ATS’s moves on the track are defined by several things: a suspension that is firmer than the sport line 3-Series, excellent weight balance, 225 width rubber on all four corners and “only” six forward gears. Starting with the transmission, while it has a negative impact on MPG numbers, having fewer gears translates into less “hunting” while craving your favorite mountain road. That brings us to the suspension and tires. You’ll find plenty of 335i “sport line” models on the showroom floor with staggered rubber (225 in front, 255 out back) which gives you a bit more traction in the rear for stoplight races. The unequal rubber also causes the 335 understeer a bit more when taking a corner sans-throttle, a situation most drivers find more predictable than oversteer. The ATS on the other hand is extremely neutral in almost every situation. Cadillac’s AWD system turns the moderately “tail happy” ATS into an Audi-esque corner carver sans Audi’s nose-heavy tendencies. Last, and least, the ATS’s steering feel matches or exceeds the feel in the 335i. Why least? Because anything with EPAS is going to be rubbery and numb. If you hadn’t guessed by now, the ATS is the performance winner.
According to my tally sheet, the ATS is one point behind the 3 as we enter the final stretch: pricing. The ATS starts at $33,095 and the new 320i undercuts it at $32,550. If that sounds bad for Cadillac, BMW cuts corners by making leather a $1,450 option among other “decontenting” tricks. For most shoppers the ATS 2.0 is going to be the starting point at $35,795, at which point the ATS is lower than the comparable 3-Series ($36,850) both on paper and at the check out counter. Load up your ATS to the gills with a V6 and AWD and you’re talking $54,000, about $4,000 less than a similar 335xi. Toss in inevitable GM discounts and cheaper financing, and the ATS is the value leader.
Checking back with the tally sheet reveals a dead heat. Is this where the import biased press says “being German gives the 3-Series an extra point“? Not quite. I’m going to resort to an entirely different cop-out: it depends on what you’re after. Huh? Personally, the ATS falls just sort of “beating” the 3-Series, but that’s based on my preferences. If however you’re a BMW fan boy who thinks the new (F30) 3-Series has gone soft (Trust me, it has. That’s why I like it.), the ATS is your “new” E90 BMW. Think of it as E91 by Cadillac. Seriously. The ATS drives like an E90 with a naturally aspirated engine and a slightly dulled steering response. What then is the ultimate driving machine? With BMW succeeding as the “new Mercedes” and Cadillac trying to be the new BMW, your guess is as good as mine. There is one thing I know for sure however: it’s a day to remember when we can talk about a BMW 335 and a Cadillac in the same sentence without any irony.
General Motors provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Specifications as tested
0-30: 1.92 Seconds
0-60: 5.2 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 13.66 Seconds @ 103 MPH
Average Fuel Economy: 23 MPG over 598 miles